The previous Government dithered and ducked for several years over how green claims should be controlled, if at all. First it promised legislation; then it dropped the idea; then it sponsored a study which recommended a statutory code of practice; and finally it promised to have a voluntary code ready by the end of 1996. Proposals for a voluntary code were eventually issued last February (ENDS Report 265, pp 27-28 ), and it is these which the new Government has now built upon.
Environmental claims have been included in a broad review of consumer protection legislation being carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry. In the meantime, Environment Minister Michael Meacher has given companies a year to demonstrate that the voluntary code can work, while maintaining that his "ultimate goal is legislation".
The Government is hoping that improvements will be achieved as major retailers put pressure on suppliers to abide by the code, which has been endorsed by the British Retail Consortium, the Confederation of British Industry and the Local Authority Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards.
The code covers any claim, either in written form or a symbol, about the environmental nature of products appearing on a product or its packaging at the point of sale. It is closely modelled on a draft international standard on environmental labelling, ISO 14021, which may be approved later this year.
According to the code, an environmental claim should be "legal, decent, honest and truthful", and should be:
Relevant to that particular product - saying that tropical hardwood has not been used to make paper is likely to be irrelevant.
A claim should not:
The Government says it is still exploring options for promoting best practice, monitoring compliance and ensuring consistent application of the code. The picture could become clearer in March, when an official review of the UK Ecolabelling Board is due for completion. The review has been broadened to address how the Board or a possible successor might promote and oversee the code (ENDS Report 276, p 27 ).
The National Consumers' Council (NCC) is conducting a survey of green claims and will repeat it next year to measure the progress made and highlight examples of good and bad practice. It wants the code to be given statutory backing.
Speaking at the launch, NCC Director Ruth Evans said that she had no doubt that the situation has not improved in the past two years, with "lots of bad environmental claims around." As a starting point, she called for a commitment from all Government Departments to demand that their suppliers adhere to the code or face delisting.
Friends of the Earth called on the Government to force companies to provide information on the life-cycle impact of their products, and to provide such information for all goods, and not just the few niche "green products".